Always With You
Sermon Preached on John 12:1-8 and Isaiah 43
March 21, 2010
One of the things we asked the speakers of many faiths who have visited us during this years Lenten series was “what is the most important story of your faith?” In this scripture from Isaiah, we hear one of the most important story of the Israelite people – the story of freedom from slavery. Slaves under Egypt, the Israelites escaped across the red sea on a path created by god – leaving the pharaohs armies to, in the poetic words of the prophet: “lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:”
That exodus story, is the story of a whole people’s life, the way they always start talking about…whatever they are talking about. Remembering and honoring the past is important. Knowing the stories that formed them are important.
Just this week, I got a reminder of this when I was handed this little church history booklet.What do you know the history of this church?
It was formed by dairy famers in 1919, who wanted to base their church on the faith of their Swiss-German homeland. The church was served by a series of pioneer pastors – including a Rev. Stucki who was here for two years before “he left, taking with him whatever he’d managed to save from his $100/month salary and, as a bonus, our organist whom he had married…” The church services were half in german until 1941. The congregation built a new building – this one – in the 1960’s and experienced good times – increased fellowship and many small groups, and some difficult times too, including a couple of splits.
An addendum to this little booklet quotes a church history from 1969:
“The debt we owe is large when we see what others have done for us. Who can ignore what he owes to the pioneers of his state, or the builders of his city, or the founders of his church? Those who move into the community with roads built, utilities established, fire and police protection provided take such things without much thought. But others made them possible, and we reap the fruits of their labors. There is little room for complaint and much room for thankfulness when we consider our life and its gifts.
Our heritage is a gift from God, which we carry on not with ungrateful hearts. The future promises much. (We) anticipate it with expectancy and hope…”
We have much to be grateful for from the past, and much to look forward to in the future. We have feet in both worlds – the past and future. The question is, how do we both honor the past and still live hopefully for the future? Using the scripture as a guide, we can at the same time tell our story, and remember our past but as the prophet Isiaah says “do not consider” it. In other words, recognize it, but do not dwell on it – the past is a door to walk thru, not a house to live in.
That is difficult for us to do because with stories we tell over decades or even generations, the details can get fuzzy, and their importance either diminished or increased artificially. We do tend to look to the past and judge it either for good or for bad. We do tend to look back and say “oh that was terrible” or “oh that was so much better”
But God does not look to the past with regret (“Oh, that thing with the Red Sea? I wish I could have done that differently!”) And God also does glorify the past either at the expense of the future. (“Hey! Remember that great thing I did with the Red Sea? Man, those the were the days! It’ll never be THAT good again!”)
God shows us a new way says in effect, “anything I can do, I can do better…”
We can see the on-going-ness of god’s work in the verbs.
God is saying, “see I am DOING a new thing,” not “I DID a new thing” or “someday I WILL DO a new thing.” The verb is doing, which means god’s new thing is “doing” all the time – in the world, in this church and in your own life.
Ok, got it. God is always doing a new thing, so let’s embrace each moment and the change it brings and be happy with that. Right?
Or not. Sometimes doing a new thing can be scary, can make us uncomfortable or even seem dangerous.
Isaiah knew that, that’s why he tells us that this new things God is doing, always doing, will include jackals and ostriches. There’s a reason he did not include little fuzzy kittens and baby chicks here. Jackals are spooky, lurking, wild laughers of the night, scavengers – they were to the folk of Isaiah’s time as they are to us. And ostriches (to us funny animals who buried their head in the sand) to the Israelites were actually unclean – maybe because they bury not their heads, but their eggs and left them unattended all day, maybe because their newly hatched young would eat the nest’s unincubated eggs.
In God's new thing, even weird, scary, and unclean beings will be swept up in the kingdom story. It can be frightening to consider, but also exciting, like those words from 1969:
“Our heritage is a gift from God, which we carry on not with ungrateful hearts. The future promises much. We anticipate it with expectancy and hope…”
Here is Jesus, at home with his best friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He is at Bethany, at the closest thing to home that we see for him in the scriptures. In our story, they are having a quiet dinner.
Then Mary takes a vial of nard. Nard, by the way, is imported from India - not a hop, skip and jump from Palestine even via today’s transportation methods. In the first century it might as well have been the moon. This week someone brought by this vial of nard he bought for more than 30$. Now imagine a pound of it, or what one translation says is a liter. Mary takes this and pours it on christ’s feet. The fragrance, the scripture says, fills the house – but Robert says the fragrance of that much nard would not just fill the house, it would spill out down the street.
Judas (and others) are uncomfortable with the waste, as perhaps we would be.
Then she washes his feet with her hair. In paintings of first century Palestine, we often see women with a cover over their hair. This is no accident. Hair was so potent in the first century, as it still is for some cultures, it was to be covered at all times. Even for us, for whom hair is mostly is just hair, would feel embarrassed if we saw someone brush someone else with it. I’m guessing Judas and and maybe others are uncomfortable with the intimacy of this act, as uncomfortable as we are.
So, let’s imagine this is it – the story we are going to tell of our faith. What does this act of profligacy, of intimacy tell us about who we are?
Mary’s act of worship is the costly nard she pours out at Jesus’ feet. She poured it out, and except for the fragrance that lingered in the room, in her hair, she poured it out and it was gone. In spite of the comments in this book, building a church is actually nothing like building a road or a police force or something concrete, something you can point to and say “I built that.” Building a chuch is more like spilling a bottle of costly perfume.
We spend hours, maybe days, planning and preparing a pot of soup that 50 people devour in 45 minutes. Hours of rehearsal are dedicated to a single anthem and then in 3 minutes, poof, it is gone. We vacuum the narthex carpet or pull weeds from around the roses or paint a wall – knowing that tomorrow or next week or next year it will need vacuuming or pulling or painting again. We raise money for a project, and then the money is gone and we start over with a new project. We study for a Sunday School lesson that is over in fewer minutes than a sitcom. We say a prayer at a hospital bedside, and the words are gone as soon as they are spoken.
Fleeting acts, yes. But like a wonderful fragrance, they linger long after. They stay with us – not solid like houses to live in, but as doors we’ve passed through – as times for which we feel grateful, because they’ve helped create what we are. But we can never confuse those past times, acts, people for WHAT we are now. God is doing doing doing – a NEW thing.
All of the years that have gone by, all that has been done to build this church, each act of worship, service, sacrifice – all that has been part of God’s doing. The fleeting nature of so much of our work here does not make it any less appreciated by God -- if anything, it makes it more. It shows a willingness, as Isaiah counseled, to do the new thing – to sing the new song. It shows a willingness to embrace a new thing might be weird or even dangerous seeming. Like Mary, it shows that we are willing to pour out all we have, here and now, not regretful or longing the past, not wishing for an as-yet-unknown future – but completely in the present moment.
God created us for praise, those are Isaiah’s last words. And Jesus? These are not the very last words, but his time and drawing near, and they are close to the last. You’ll always have the poor with you, Christ says, acts of service, of worship – however fleeting, you will always have with you. You will not always have me, as you know me know me now, in this body. And yet through those acts of service, of worship , you will know, through all that is to come – sorrow and joy, death and resurrection – that you will always have Christ’s spirit and presence with you too. Amen.